“These applications are my perpetual torment” – this was Benjamin Franklin, complaining to a friend about the endless requests he received for letters of reference. Increasingly cynical about the worth of such letters, Franklin disposed of one request very quickly: “The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name.”
I read (and write) hundreds of letters of recommendation every year during university admissions season, and I’ve become sceptical about their worth as well. I’ve read letters written by candidates’ family and friends (“Though I am her mother, I can assure you without bias that she is one of the most gifted….”), letters purportedly written by Chaucer and Shakespeare (“Herein ye find the file o’ a man from the North”), and applications accompanied by sixpacks of beer or boxes of trophies (“employee of the month”).
But most of the letters I read are dull and formulaic – which, in part, is what inspired Dear Committee Members. I often force writing exercises on my students, but this time I gave myself an assignment: Write a piece of fiction in the form of a series of letters of recommendation. I wasn’t sure this was a good or even a feasible idea, so I told myself (because writing is a mind-game) that it was just a silly low-risk experiment, and if the first ten pages were awful, I would throw them away.
The very best thing about writing this book: I quickly realized that, in order for the novel to function, my letter-writing professor, Jay Fitger, would need to be wildly inappropriate, including in recommendations written for other people information about his own romantic history, his sense of failure, his frustrations with colleagues at work.
Looking at the pages I was writing in draft, I saw that I’d created a second self, a doppelganger – my evil twin. I’d never had an imaginary friend to blame things on when I was a child, but here was Professor Jay Fitger, mouthy, obnoxious, funny, and full of rage. How satisfying! While I’m on the quiet end of the spectrum, eager for compromise and consensus, Jay (whose name is – curious coincidence – my first initial) was more than willing to push himself forward, aggressive. I felt a secret thrill of recognition every time he put his cantankerous foot in his mouth.
Some readers have asked if it was difficult to create such an irascible (and male) character. I want to tell them that I *love* Professor Jay Fitger; he is everything I don’t know how to be.
Some readers have also asked if, after publishing the novel, I still get requests for letters of recommendation. Yes, of course. Take a look at this one:
My name is ____ and I am an undergraduate student studying at UMN. I am looking to hire an experienced writing professional to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of a recommender who does not have time to write one out for me and has asked that I somehow put one together for him to sign and mail in.
This letter does not have to be longer than one page and I have a format I would like you to follow. You will be compensated for this job if you are able to do it, money is not an objective as I need this letter within the next 2 weeks.
I was tempted to respond, if only to correct his punctuation, but then I realized I could leave that task to Professor Jay Fitger. I can be appropriate and polite, and leave the piss and vinegar to my evil twin.